NEW ORLEANS -- The words began rumbling from my mouth like a train without brakes, and my mind knew the answer to the question I was about to ask before Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan even had a chance to respond.
"Is there any relief in the wake of your first loss?" I essentially asked (without the luxury of a first-tee mulligan) after the Falcons fell to the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome on Sunday.
Relief? Seriously? After a loss like this? In this venue? Against this hated team with this terrible defense? On an afternoon when Ryan clearly lacked the sharpness he'd possessed through the first eight games of the Falcons' formerly perfect season?
Tylenol provides relief. Bengay provides relief. Heck, compared to a 31-27 defeat to the Falcons' NFC South foes, a cold shower on a winter day provides relief. This loss, even if it alleviated the exterior pressure that comes with trying to run the table for a perfect season, was not relief.
"I think you want to win every game you play, that's for sure," Ryan said.
So let's be clear about something: No, even though Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez had just said, minutes earlier, that "you need to sometimes stumble" before you get better, Atlanta did not in any way want to lose this game. More specifically, the Falcons didn't want to lose this way.
But it nonetheless prompts some interesting questions regarding the Falcons, a team that didn't get nearly the credit a more polarizing franchise would've received for going undefeated in the first half. What, exactly, should we make of this game? Does it deserve concern-worthy criticism, or does the team get a one-time free pass?
That's not a question we can answer easily, not without seeing how the Falcons respond. But the situation, at the very least, is worthy of deliberation.
"It's going to make us a better football team," Gonzalez said. "I guarantee it."
And I, for one, believe it. However, this isn't simply about getting better. It's about whether or not, once they are indeed better, the Falcons are capable of making a run to the Super Bowl, of following the path of nearly 45 percent of the other teams in NFL history to be the last undefeated squad in a given season.
For many in Atlanta, it's been the question all along: How will the Falcons perform when it matters most, in a playoff atmosphere (like the one Atlanta experienced in the Superdome), against a team that is bringing everything it's got (like the Saints did Sunday)? Naturally, that's where concern grows.
That's where a loss like Sunday's feels worthy of distinct criticism.
On two occasions, the Falcons failed to finish critical drives in the fourth quarter. First, they settled for a field goal after a beautiful 52-yard catch by Julio Jones (and an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on New Orleans) put the Falcons on the 5-yard line with a new set of downs. Then, after reaching the Saints' 1-yard line, the Falcons failed on second, third and fourth down inside the two-minute warning.
What is particularly unsettling is that all this occurred against a league-worst defense that had given up more yards through eight games (3,770) than any team since -- wait for it -- 1940.
"That's the most disappointing thing about the whole game, us going down there and having an opportunity inside the five a couple times -- and not scoring touchdowns," wide receiver Roddy White said.
On one hand, Atlanta can take solace that Sunday's performance by no means represented an all-day meltdown. The Falcons lost despite besting the Saints in total yards (454-440), passing yards (408-292), first downs (25-21), third-down conversion percentage (50-40) and time of possession (32:35-27:25).
So, yes, the Falcons are still playing solid football. And because we were just halfway through the schedule, this had yet to turn into a true chase for perfection. So losing a game under these circumstances was not the end of the world. Though Ryan didn't play his best football, misfiring far more often than he has most times this season, his team was still two yards from taking the lead with 1:46 to play.
"This is football," Gonzalez said. "I mean, nobody is going to go around crying. Nobody is going to be panicking. We're a good football team. Our confidence hasn't changed. Our scheme isn't going to change.
"There isn't any answer I'm going to give you why we lost or why they won. This is a good football team, a hard-fought rivalry game, and they came out on top."
The loss surely is not going to help quiet some of the Falcons' critics, who explain away Atlanta's current streak of dominance by citing a soft schedule. (The Falcons' first eight opponents combined for a winning percentage of .369, the lowest in the NFL.) But the only thing the Falcons can do to silence such doubters is win games -- and that's exactly what this group had done before Sunday.
The Falcons are supremely talented. Ryan is playing top-tier football, and his weapons, including White, Gonzalez and Jones, are making life good for him. Atlanta needs to play better in the red zone, and it needs to find a way to breathe life into its running game. But by all means, this appears to be a very playoff-ready roster, built with a great combination of depth and skill.
Now it's time for this group to take the next step. It's time for the Falcons to prove that, when they are facing a make-or-break scenario in a hostile environment against a hungry team, they too possess urgency, resiliency and hunger.
Ryan has led more game-winning drives than any quarterback since 2008. He has what it takes to be a playoff contender. And he has the players around him to get it done. But what happened on Sunday, when the Falcons couldn't punch it into the end zone during those fourth-quarter drives, was inexcusable.
Should this loss spark major concern? Or will we someday look back on this time as a period when the team took another step toward elite-level maturity? That's not a question any of us on the outside can answer. Instead, the Falcons must answer for themselves.
"The more I think about it, there's no way I'm happy that we lost, but it's something that we can learn from," Gonzalez said. "You learn from your mistakes. That's how you get better. You need to sometimes stumble. For us, it was (Sunday).
"We're going to learn from this."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.